Manic Mystery Mayhem – Three Lessons Learned About GMing Mysteries
I had an interesting game on Wednesday. I made a couple big mistakes you can hopefully learn from.
I’m playtesting the mystery portion of my Demonplague I: The Frozen Necromancer adventure, which releases in 2017.
The PCs must find out who or what is behind disappearing villagers.
During the session the PCs decided to knock on every door of every building in the village.
Fortunately, I have those ready as part of the adventure. At the time of writing I was tempted to just detail the plot-important bits. But there’s 30 detailed locations and 50 or so NPCs for the party to encounter.
Mind The Detail
My first mistake was going off-script. I got a detail wrong. Instead of correcting it, I kept it as-is and moved on. That tiny detail caused ripple butterfly effects for the rest of the session.
I do this all the time when running adventures, and it’s normally ok. But this was a mystery adventure, and details like this matter 1000 times more. A simple mistake when answering, “Are any of the bodies mutilated?” became my undoing.
So note to self, and note to you, details in mystery adventure matter. And if you get a detail wrong, correct is as soon as possible instead of hiding in, because downstream effects will be painful.
Frame Zoom Level
My second mistake was a new experience and a major learning.
The players were asking way too many questions for my comfort level. From a GMing standpoint, the mystery was simple. Get some clues (not all, just a few, the mystery clues have back-ups), ask people in the village, figure it out.
However, the players were focused on the clues and their intricate details. This is also normally ok with me. But each new detail I made up became a GM trap later on, like why one victim had a suntan revealing a missing ring and the others did not.
At one point, exasperated, I said outright, “This is not CSI, guys!”
The fault lay with me, however. I should have framed things up better with the players on the nature of the mystery and the zoom level appropriate for the adventure.
Has this ever happened to you? How did you deal with it?
At the end of the session I was mentally exhausted. I’m going four days now without sugar. This week we’re about to launch a major campaign at work, which is always trial-by-fire. And two players did not make the session (which means faster pace and greater intensity).
I did not realize what was happening to me during the session as a result of the CSI situation, but afterwards I realized for three-and-a-half hours straight I was on trial, answering questions, and flying by the seat of my pants recovering in real-time from botched details.
I’m going to set a reminder to pause during sessions, breathe, and take a break. A fatigued GM benefits no one.
The session was good. The players all said they had fun. One apologized for asking so many questions but it was not her fault. I’d do the same thing if I was trying to solve a mystery. But I’d call the night a 7 out of 10. Hopefully I learn from my mistakes.
The ironic thing is Campaign Logger is the perfect tool for handling details like this.
Especially its Log-And-Find feature. This feature is available to all existing and new Campaign Logger GMs.
In Logger, the screen is split into two sections.
Top section is your note-taking area. Write and auto-tag session details as you GM. The auto-tagging means you write important details like names without spelling errors. And you take notes faster as the auto-tagging completes your tags for you — awesome for long names and details!
Bottom section is your look-up area. I designed this because I found this feature missing from other note-taking tools. As I write notes and can’t remember a detail, I don’t want to have to switch screens or go hunting and lose my train of thought. Sometimes I’d even lose my note because of a Save issue.
But in Logger, you can search and filter all your campaign details while keeping your note active and in edit mode in the top section.
So Log-And-Find means you can look stuff up as you write without having to leave the editor. Awesome for finding details as you take session notes. Here’s a screenshot example:
The Campaign Logger charter member sale is still on. Click here for details.